A few summers ago I hosted a summer poetry class for interested Central Asian students. Poetry is notorious as the hardest expression of any language to understand, but a brave crew of students made it through the summer. Together we surveyed some of the most famous and impactful poems of the English language. In each session we first worked through the basic meaning of the lines, then we would spend some time debating the message of the poem, and finally whether or not the students agreed or disagreed with that message. I finished the summer with these two poems, whose moral posture couldn’t be more contradictory. When asked whether my Muslim Central Asian students resonated with Henley or with Herbert, a fascinating discussion ensued, one which gave hints about which students might be experiencing initial conviction of sin.
What about you? Do you resonate with Henley or with Herbert? To allude to yet another famous poem, Henly and Herbert could be represented as two roads that diverge in a yellow wood. And you can’t take them both.
Invictus, William Earnest Henley Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
Love III, George Herbert Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lacked any thing. A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I? Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve. You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.
Props to poetryfoundation.org for the access to these poems